Feeling let down by CUSU? Blame the council
Apathy is the source of our problems
A few weeks ago students saw CUSU council defeat a motion supporting a class action lawsuit by students looking to reclaim tuition fees lost to strikes. The fact that this surprised no one is itself a bit strange, after all, what is a student union for if not defending the rights of students? If, like me, you lost a full fourteen days of lectures to strikes, you may be somewhat miffed to learn that the council which is fundamentally democratically accountable to you is actively dissuading you from claiming something in the region of £1500 in lost tuition.
As someone prepared to be 'unemployed as fuck' after university, that money means a lot. So how exactly does this bizarre situation a result? A union that goes against the interests of its member is basically unheard of.
Having been privileged enough to spend my last exam term inwardly collapsing while trying to balance Part 1B physics with editing this paper, I was lucky (read: obliged) to attend a few councils. At the time, Amatey Doku was in charge, and CUSU didn't even seem to understand why there was a gaping blackhole in it's finances… until suddenly they did. Doku was a smooth political operator. What a time that was.
Councils typically last about an hour, and follow basically the same formula. A motion is proposed by one of the few keen JCR presidents. The wording of said motion then gets challenged by one of the other keen JCR presidents. The CUSU Sabbs, having decided their opinion on everything 5 years in advance, express their approval or disgust, and wholly contingent on their view the motion is waived through by a legion of council members who frankly look like they'd rather be anywhere else. At its most basic level, very little substantive debate actually happens at council. Instead, the Sabbs decide what they think, and the members are happy enough to oblige them, so long as it means less time in that dingy sterile chamber.
Here we see how decisions which do not reflect the ordinary student get passed. Everyone knows the Sabbs can be pretty ideological, down largely to the abysmal turnout for CUSU elections. We are happy to indulge them, because we know that CUSU is supposedly democratic, and the mandate is held not by the nutty Sabbs but by your good old friendly JCR president, who all in all, seems a reasonable person. The problem is, that JCR president became president not to enact policy on 'the marketisation of education' and other abstract (/meaningless) things, but to work, at a college level, to improve the lives of students (and get some CV points on the way) . CUSU council to them is just a fortnightly ball ache, and realistically, they'll do anything to make it a short affair, even when that means blindly voting for Sabb driven motions which frankly fail to reflect the views of most students.
Ultimately, this results from the fundamental disconnect between university and college level politics. Most JCR president manifestos focus on keeping the bar cheap, negotiating student rent, improving access; meaningful issues to the students that elect them. Most of the time, CUSU will get a line, if it's lucky, and that will be the last you hear of it. Hence, with no real way of judging the opinion of those he/she represents, the president trots of to council, does what the Sabbs say, and the quasi-democratic charade is done before 8pm.
This isn't really their fault, after all, most students don't know what day council is on, let alone what issues are being debated. By the time the news reports come out, it's too late to ask your representative to take your opinion into account. Given they aren't elected on the lofty goals of the CUSU president, they cannot know the opinion of the college on a given issue. So whatever the Sabbs say seems like an easy second.
This is obviously a problem, with consequences that have already manifested. If the CUSU council members fail to reflect the opinion of their electorate, then the council instantly loses legitimacy. Fixing this means a two way engagement between you and your representative. It means the council members asking their students what they think, and similarly, students telling council members how to vote.
Ultimately here, we are all slacking, and turning that around seems a largely impossible task. In the mean time though, it's worth taking every decision CUSU makes with a pinch of salt: it may not be as democratic as you think.